The Director's Chair Interviews

Betty Thomas Works The Late Shift
by Mary Hardesty
DGA Magazine

Click here for Betty Thomas films, books, and soundtracks

When Emmy Award-winning director Betty Thomas was proposed as a possibility to direct the HBO Pictures presentation The Late Shift (the behind-the-scenes story of the battle between late night talk show hosts Jay Leno and David Letterman), executive producer Ivan Reitman knew her only by her work and her growing reputation as a director who was good with actors.

"I met her and liked her and what she had to say about the screenplay," recalled Reitman. "I had looked at some of her other work [which includes The Brady Bunch Movie, Couples and the TV series Dream On for which she won an Emmy] and none of it was appropriate [to The Late Shift]. But there was just something about the intelligence of the construction and her choice of tone in those things that told me she understood what she was doing in terms of finding an approach to a film and sticking to it.

"Also, I knew there is always the possibility of a conflict between a producer and a director, and because I had sort of developed the screenplay myself and wanted to be able to have some input, I wanted to have a director who was at least sympathetic to doing this thing much the same way that I wanted to," he continued. "In this sense I wanted a truly collaborative effort and that proved to be the case during the production, as well as the post production, of The Late Shift.

The DGA Magazine met up with Betty Thomas outside her Raleigh Studios office in Los Angeles where she was putting the finishing touches on The Late Shift, scheduled to air in February 1996.

You seem to have jumped into the controversial arena from day one of your directing career. What made you decide to direct this bare-all backstage saga of the television industry?

When the best-selling book this film is based on first came out, I picked it up, but I only read a little bit of it. I just wasn't that interested. So, when Ivan Reitman sent me the Bill Carter script, I was surprised that I couldn't put it down. This is very unusual. Generally, I will pick up a script and read for a while and put it down and come back, but I always worry about the script from that point on. Then my mother - who is from Saint Louis, doesn't know much about the entertainment business and doesn't really like late night television - read it and couldn't put it down. I knew I had to direct this project if my own mother couldn't put it down.

Weren't you uncomfortable taking a project that lambastes the very networks that gave you your acting and directing breaks?

Ivan and I joked about whether anyone would ever speak to us again, and we did receive a number of phone calls from network executives, but they were mostly concerned about which actors were portraying them.

To say the least Jay Leno's former Tonight Show producer Helen Kushnick is not portrayed in a very flattering light. Weren't you afraid of a lawsuit?

"Afraid" is the wrong word. " Careful to stick to the facts as I knew them" would be truer.

This is a story about real people. What other issues were you worried about?

[Laughing] I'd never be on their shows again.

Anything else bother you about taking this job?

It was so journalistic. I didn't know if it would be cinematic enough, and it was a lot drier than anything I'd ever done before. A number of people in my life told me not to do it, including my mother and my agent. They said, "Your roots are with the networks. Why would you want to step on toes?" My response is that I'm not telling anything that hasn't already been told. If they didn't want it told, then why did they give the interviews in the first place? The only person I was concerned about was Helen Kushnick. I didn't expect her to sanction this movie. But she is in no way the villian of this piece.

There was one other thing. I didn't know if I wanted to make a movie about real people who are walking around. It's that little Midwest thing [switching to a motherly voice], "Never treat people any way you wouldn't want to be treated."

You helped revise the script with New York Times journalist Bill Carter, who is the author of the book and the script. Were HBO's lawyers looking over your shoulder?

Yes, but HBO was really supportive. They said we should shoot the script version we had and the version the lawyers wanted and they'd try to keep our version. The events are depicted pretty much the way they are presented in the book, with the exception that time is compressed. It was the soundtrack the lawyers were most worried about. We cleaned up Helen's language - for the airline version only.

This is a very complicated story with all sorts of little side things going on. Ivan Reitman says you have taken a relatively complicated script and focused it in a way that makes it clearer and more discernible, while still keeping his vision for the project. How did you manage to keep the producer so happy?

We spent a lot of time up front speaking about tone in terms of the shooting style, the acting style and the lighting style. It turned out that Ivan and I wanted to go for a naturalistic, energetic - almost documentary style. Because the book was done in a very journalistic way, it was hard to transfer to the screen.

Is that why you included so many hand-held camera shots?

Yes. About 98 percent of the movie is shot hand-held. As far as I know, Ivan had never worked that way before. I turned in my first dailies and I got a call from Ivan saying, "I like it." After a while he really liked it. It's not his style, but it worked for this project. Not only did it help keep the journalistic tone of the book, but it let us shoot in all those teeny tiny little offices.

Wasn't it difficult shooting in real offices?

Yeah. We often were working right next to people who were trying to work on their phones. We ended up listening to their calls while we really wanted to be listening to our calls. We didn't have enough money to build all the sets, so I had to save most of the budget for recreating the Leno and Letterman sets. Wouldn't you know it, after all that, most of those scenes got thrown out.

You must have relied heavily on video assist?

Yes. When I first started directing, about seven years ago, most directors didn't work with it, so I learned to direct not using it, and I still really like to ride a camera shot. In the beginning [of my directing career], I'd spend my lunch periods practicing long tracking shots on the camera. I guess all those Hill Street Blues years got into my brain.

How do you make a film interesting that is primarily about people talking in meetings and over the phone?

I have no idea, except, thank God for car phones and modern technology and great actors. Actually two phone scenes are among the favorite scenes in the film.

You shot this in 30 days over the summer. Did that schedule allow you any rehearsal time?

Rehearsal days seem to have a way of drying up, so we had to make do with only two days.

What was the biggest problem on this shoot?

None of us were pleased with the first try at makeup for the Jay Leno character, so we ended up reshooting some of the first scenes. Not only did we make it on schedule and come in under budget, but we made the schedule and squeezed in the reshooting.

Did you get the cast you wanted?

Yeah. Kathy Bates was my first choice to play Helen Kushnick, and HBO and Ivan also thought she would be great.

Was it intimidating directing an Academy Award-winning actor?

Yes. Even after she came over to my house and I saw she was a wonderful human being, it was still difficult. The first day of shooting we did a mini-rehearsal and it didn't seem quite right, but I couldn't bring myself to say anything. I knew she was distracted because there were some things going on in her personal life, but I also knew that it was hurting both of us if I didn't get the best take possible because we wouldn't have time to come back. As Kathy's character describes network executives in the movie,"I had no balls."

I got no sleep that night and the next day Ivan saw the dailies and called me up and said, "What's wrong with Kathy?" I said "Ivan, what do you mean?" and he said he thought she was going to dig right in and not step away from the character. I said, "Well, that was the idea." He asked me what I told her and offered to help me out a bit, and I had to say I hadn't told her anything. He said I had to tell her. So, the next day Kathy comes on the set and I say, "Hey, Kathy." She says, "Yeah?" I say, "I never got to say anything to you or give you any direction yesterday, and I know you're a thousand times better than that, and we have to do it again." She thinks about it for a minute and says, "Good." She went on to deliver a marvelous performance. The truth was she is such a professional, she had realized it wasn't working. She kept coming up with great ideas to make it even better.

The biggest lesson I learned from this project was how to ask a big star to do it again. Now, if Marlon Brando were on the set, I could go right up to him and say, "Oh come on, Marlon, you can do better."

Before you were a director, you were an artist, a teacher, a Second City regular and an Emmy Award-winning television actress on Hill Street Blues. How has that affected your directing?

In the beginning, I wanted to make sure the actors had the most creative environment possible, but at some point I had to say, "It's not only about that." You have to be the parent. Now it's so much easier to say no, but it was not an easy transition from actor to director for me. It was [Hill Street executive producer] Steven Bochco who told me I had to learn to say no, but I didn't really get what he meant until I got to Chicago and began directing theatre for Second City.

Do you think it's different for women to be directors then it is for men?

I think it is, but it's hard to explain. I think it's more because of my personality that people say it's fun to be on my sets, but some of it is probably because I'm a woman. Of course, many men react negatively to having a woman say, "Put this light over there." I have a strong group of women who work with me. On The Brady Bunch, the crew would do something and then turn to us and say, "Well, what do the women say?" I hear women say, "I used my feminine ways." Somehow I missed that lesson growing up, so what I do is try to work in a very direct way.

You are an ardent supporter of the DGA's director mentoring program. Did you have a directing mentor?

Unofficially, yes. Robert Zemeckis and Steven Bochco let me hang around their sets. Steven had a rule about never letting ensemble actors direct an episode of a series they were in, but that didn't stop him from helping me when I wanted to direct later on. I try to have someone observing every time I work, but to date I haven't had any success stories.

Now, most of my observers are working on other smaller jobs and have to come and go. When I was learning to direct, I went every day like it was my job. Although, my first director from the DGA mentor program did show up on the Dream On set every day, but nothing happened for her. I also had an observing director from Women in Film who came every day to the set, and nothing's happened for her yet either.

Why do you think it is that these young women aren't getting directing jobs?

I don't know. I think women actors have had some degree of success directing because at least they have the self confidence gained from being successful in another part of the business. But just because you have recognition and talent doesn't mean someone will give you a chance. I'm comfortable hanging out with the girls, and I guess guys are more comfortable hanging out with the guys. Fortunately, Ivan's a smart guy and picked who he thought was the best person for the project, and it happened to be a woman.

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